What I’m working on – ‘Casement’

Having just completed the dissertation element for my MA in International Relations – 16,000 words written, hundreds of thousands read, 4 months of research, many new wrinkles and a further receded hairline – which challenged Giorgio Agamben’s theory of sovereign power and bare life by suggesting that we can theorise the act of self-immolation in Tibet as a form of resistance to sovereign power, I have gladly stepped back into the world of musical composition.

A fortnight ago I was in Glasgow, writing and performing the music for a new play by my old school friend Michael John O’Neill. This week I’m working on a commission for the Arts Council NI, a scene for an opera which I’ve been wanting to write for the past five years.

The opera, which I hope to write in full over the next year, is based on the life of Roger Casement (1864-1916), British imperialist, humanitarian, and Irish revolutionary martyr. There has been much written about Casement and his transformation from a loyal British consular officer, convinced of the benevolence of western imperialism, to a fervent Irish nationalist and revolutionary. It is a transformation which is generally considered to have begun during his time in the Belgian controlled Congo Free State, where he collected evidence of slavery and severe punishments enacted by the Belgian forces in a report for the Foreign Office.

The scene I’m writing at the moment focuses on this period, creating a fictionalised meeting between Casement and Joseph Conrad – the two did indeed meet and spend a few weeks together in the Congo in 1890, but the conversation is invented by myself. There is a difficulty in approaching this scene which stems from the fact that the two men did meet and discuss things, and there are some records of the kind of things they spoke of, but I want to create something new. Trying to construct a verbatim conversation would of course be impossible, but using the available letters etc. may bring me closer to actual events than I intend and end up being confusing.

I think that I can avoid these issues by keeping one thing clearly in my mind: this is not ultimately an opera about Casement per se, but rather an opera about imperialism, expressed and explored through the character of Casement, through his own emotional and intellectual journey through life.

Still, writing the text is proving to be no easy task. Libretti are strange things and don’t make a lot of sense when they are simply read, they need to be sung and listened to in order to reveal themselves. I’ll have a look through the libretto of Alban Berg’s wonderful Wozzeck: that dark psychological thriller of jealousy and murder set on an army barracks. I think my opera will want to capture something of the mood of Berg’s.

Earlier this year I wrote the overture and an interlude for the opera, which were performed by members of the Philharmonia orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall (conducted by Rudiger Bohn) in June. Recordings of Banna Strand (the overture) and Matadi (an interlude) can be found here:

Casement: I. Banna Strand


Casement: II. Matadi


The first movement, Banna Strand, is constructed of groupings of major thirds which constantly oscillate in an agitated manner, flowing in and out of different combinations and forming a variety of larger chords. The fore- and backgrounds shift and merge as melodic lines appear from the agitated textures and melt away again soon after.

The second movement, Matadi, begins as a plaintive monody played by marimba and shadowed by subtly different lines played by the ensemble. The movement develops into a two-part invention, which suddenly ceases revealing a striking perfect fifth, which shifts immediately into a completely different harmonic world, the work ending with sullen string chords.

The scene I’m writing at the moment is titled The Wood that Weeps, which refers to a term used to describe the rubber trees of the Congo. Rubber extraction involved draining the sap of the trees, which made the trees appear to be weeping, but the entire process of rubber extraction relied on slavery and violence against the Congolese, giving the phrase an added pathos. When the scene is done I will have around 25 minutes of the opera written, which isn’t too bad going. I imagine it’ll end up between 1’30” and 2 hours when it’s all done, so there’s much work to be done.

6 thoughts on “What I’m working on – ‘Casement’

  1. I was interested to read about your take on Casement because I have been looking at writing something about him myself. I am a trustee of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, so I am aware of Casement as something of a gay icon. Historically, he is also linked to the Easter Uprising.

    I was in contact with Dr Roger Sawyer for a period of time. As one of Casement’s more recent biographers, he acknowledged Casement’s contribution to human rights in relation to slavery. Sawyer went on to argue that the Black Diaries were forged. It is now clear that the Black Diaries were the product of genuine material.

    I am interested that you have chosen to focus on one particular aspect of Casement’s career and wondered if you might comment your reasons for this.

    1. Hi Graham, many thanks for your interest. There are many very interesting aspects to Casement’s life – and times – and indeed his homosexuality is a particularly interesting facet of his story – and raises interesting (and depressing) questions about his times. His homosexuality is something that will feature in the opera – although particularly in the particular scene I recently wrote – and will in many ways tie in with ideas of imperialism and colonisation. Both homosexuality and imperialism, after all, rely heavily on ideas and theories of masculinity and gender. There is also a similarity in that both force open questions of identity, subjectivity and power.

      Also, I certainly think there is connection between connection between his homosexuality and his revolutionary interests and actions. Not so much on the surface, but rather in that he must have held strong convictions of both but also knew that – in most circles – neither were considered acceptable. He found a group of people, a movement, which accepted his revolutionary ideas, indeed fostered them, but I don’t know that he did find a group of people who accepted his homosexuality.

      In terms of the drama of the opera, I think that both of these things show two different examples of secret lives that Casement led, which is interesting to explore in a dramatic form.

      So I think I will certainly explore his homosexuality in the opera, but I think what I will try to do most of all is explore his growing distaste for imperialism and fervent republicanism as closely related phenomena.

      If you do write anything about Casement I’d be most glad to read it, so do let me know! I gather that Casement had religious beliefs himself, particularly near the end of his life, and I wonder if you can connect with him in some way there: I can only assume that Casement must have felt that his religious beliefs – in the end, Catholic beliefs – would not have accepted his homosexuality. I’m sure that many – most? – religious believers these days would see the two as mutually exclusive, but you must not feel that to be true, which is really interesting.

  2. I have just finished reading the biography by Brian Inglis who gave a very detialed account of Casement’s consular career. He thought that the Black Diaries were genuine. My own view is that Casement’s consular activities gave him more scope for his homosexuality. Having said that, the Germans seemed to have been well aware of his sexuality.

    Iglis makes the point that Cssement was baptised into the Catholic faith so the Catholic church had a duty of care, as it were, to ensure that he died ‘within the fold’. My own view is that there are gay Christians who ought to expect the church to have a duty of care. The main Christian denominations recognise that there are homosexuals in their congregations, but they will not condone homosexual practices. The Same-sex Marriage Bill has made life quite difficult for the churches. The position in Edwardian England was very different. Casement may have lived if he had entered a plea of insanity, he did not want to do so because it would have called into question his work for Home Rule. I am writing a stage monologue which will hopefully deal with issues surrounding faith and sexuality.

  3. I have just finished a monologue about the writing of my libretto. My intention had been to send it to Fishamble in Dublin, but it is possible that the company will only consider work by Irish writers.

    Washlands examines my own reasons for wanting to write about Casement and the response I received from a number of sources.

    Have you been able to complete your libretto? The reason I ask is that I would like to be able to mention your work on a Casement opera in my monologue.

  4. Hi Graham,

    Sorry, I only came across this comment now.

    That’s great, well done on completing the libretto. I actually have not yet completed my libretto, but have received funding to write the libretto and music during 2015, which is good news.

    Funnily enough, I will be working with an individual at Fishamble as I write the libretto.

    I don’t know much more about how Fishamble function regarding whether one needs to be Irish or not.

    If you do send the libretto it may cause a little confusion with my contact there, as he already knows we will be working on my libretto together, so maybe clarify it’s a separate project, if you don’t mind.

    Stay well.

  5. I thought I would log on to see how the opera was progressing and found your message about Fishamble. What I have done is adapt my libretto as a stage play, so there will no conflict of interest. It is possible that Fishamble is considering several projects about Casement in light of the forthcoming anniversary.

    One of the main problems I had in writing a synopsis was that both England and Germany had been following Casement, and they were well aware of his homosexuality. It could now be said that the trial was justified. (He would have got a ‘fair’ trial for 1916). Casement’s interest in human rights is, I believe, compromised by an his sexuality. So I have kept what I have written very much to the events up until 1916.

    I was very impressed by Banna Strand. The piece captures something of a journey through the fog. My own take on Banna Strand involves skylarks.

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